The Role of University Students in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 October 23, 2020
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a nationwide revolution against the Hungarian People's Republic led by Mátyás Rákosi and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956. Leaderless at the beginning, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since the Red Army drove Nazi Germany from its territory at the End of World War II in Europe. University students played a pivotal role in the outbreak and the escalation of the Revolution.
Rákosi's resignation in July 1956 emboldened students, writers, and journalists to be more active and critical in politics. Students and journalists started a series of intellectual forums examining the problems facing Hungary. It was during these times that students formed democratic unions which would never have been tolerated during Rákosi's dictatorship. On 22 October, about 5000 students gathered in the hall of the Technical University of Budapest and they announced the re-establishment of MEFESZ (Union of Hungarian University and Academy Students), a democratic student organization, previously banned under Rákosi's time. The students drew up a 16-point manifesto in which they called for freedom of speech and freedom of expression; they called for open, multi-party elections, freedom of opinion and of expression, freedom of the press and of radio and the removal of Soviet troops from Hungarian soil. It was, in the context of the time, an incredibly brave and daring undertaking.
On 23 October, a huge crowd went to the Parliament building, shouting their demands in the streets using a van with loudspeakers. Along the way, they tore down Soviet flags and Red Stars from public buildings. Shouting 'Russians go home!', they flew the Hungarian flag with its central Soviet emblem torn out. A student delegation, entering the radio building to try to broadcast the students' demands, was detained. When the delegation's release was demanded by the protesters outside, they were fired upon from within the building by the State Security Police, known as ÁVH. Several students died and one was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. Without really having planned it, the students of Budapest had unleashed an uprising that quickly spread across the capital and the whole country.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 constituted the most serious threat to the Soviet hegemony throughout the Cold War years. It was ultimately unsuccessful. Western powers spoke loud words; the US condemned the attack as a 'monstrous crime', but they did nothing – the risks of venturing into an Eastern European conflict, as well as the potential for escalation, were too great. Great Britain and France were distracted by the emerging crisis over the Suez Canal and the US by presidential elections. Over 200,000 Hungarians fled across the border into Austria and the West until that escape route was sealed off.